Guantanamo Bay and the Annihilation of the Exception

25 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2005

See all articles by Fleur Johns

Fleur Johns

University of New South Wales, Faculty of Law


This article takes issue with prevailing characterizations of Guantanamo Bay as an instance of international law and US law's breakdown or withdrawal: a surmounting of the rule by the exception. Contentions along these lines circulating in international legal literature and, in a divergent sense, in the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, are examined in a critical light. Against these accounts, this article argues that Guantanamo Bay is, to a hyperbolic degree, a work of legal representation and classification: an instance of the norm struggling to overtake the exception. Moreover, this article argues, strategies of detention, interrogation and control being utilized at Guantanamo Bay are being sustained in part through domestication, evisceration and avoidance of experiences of deciding on the exception. In short, this article maintains, experiences of the exception appear to be in retreat at Guantanamo Bay, rather than in ascendancy. The author develops this argument by reference to public records and official characterizations of decision-making at Guantanamo Bay. By way of a critical response, the author then presents a heterodox reading of Carl Schmitt's theorization of the exception, whereby the experience of exceptional decisionism is read away from Schmitt's preoccupation with the state. It is to such a renewed, diffuse sense of the exception within law, rather than to a vehement insistence upon the norm, that this article suggests turning in raising doubts about the ongoing work of the US Government at Guantanamo Bay.

Keywords: Guantanamo Bay, international law, legal theory, Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben

JEL Classification: K33, K40

Suggested Citation

Johns, Fleur E., Guantanamo Bay and the Annihilation of the Exception. European Journal of International Law, Vol. 16, No. 4, 2005, Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 06/17, Available at SSRN:

Fleur E. Johns (Contact Author)

University of New South Wales, Faculty of Law ( email )

UNSW Australia
Sydney, New South Wales 2052
+61 2 9385 9893 (Phone)


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